Tag Archives: Peter Conn

THOUGHTS ON THE SECULAR UNIVERSITY—Pt. II

Last week I responded to a rant in the Chronicle of Higher Education by University of Pennsylvania Professor Peter Conn (“The Great Accreditation Farce”). With considerable righteous indignation, Conn insists that to grant accreditation to schools like Wheaton College makes a mockery of the academic ideal of “unfettered inquiry” that supposed defines the secular academy. In my response (“Should Religious Colleges Be Denied Accreditation?”), I mainly pointed out that Conn’s diatribe failed to capture my own experience. Since leaving the University of Washington for Wheaton College I have enjoyed more, not less academic freedom.

Then, prompted by a question from a reader, I decided to follow up with two broader posts on the worldview of the secular university as I experienced it in my twenty-two years as a faculty member at such an institution. In the first (“Thoughts on the Secular University–Pt. I”), I primarily wanted to stress my belief that, at the level of the institution, today’s state universities are influenced by a hefty helping of market-oriented pragmatism. State universities are frequently enormous economic concerns. They employ thousands of workers and have billion-dollar budgets. And although they are non-profit organizations, they have to attract customers and keep them smiling just as much as Walmart or McDonalds.

We are tempted to think that state schools are shielded from market pressures because they receive state funds, and perhaps there was a time when that was largely true. State legislatures have slashed their support to higher education over the last generation, however, so much so that many state universities are “public” institutions in name only. Universities compete for students, they compete for wealthy private donors, and they compete for government and corporate grants. To a significant degree, they take the shape of what others are willing to pay for.

While this is true, I am not remotely suggesting that the secular university is an ideology-free zone. Far from it. There is a well-defined ideology that predominates in the secular university. Not every faculty member equally endorses it, but it is pervasive enough and dominant enough that it is reasonable to call it the secular university’s defining worldview.

So what does this ideology look like? It’s probably best to begin by defining terms. A political philosopher could come up with a much more precise (and convoluted?) definition, but I like the simple definition of “ideology” as essentially your ideas about the way the world is and the way the world should be. Let’s take these two components in turn. What is the prevailing view in the secular university of how the world is?

The answer is simple: it is material, period. More than anyplace else in America, today’s secular universities are strongholds of the materialist view (as opposed to the religious view) of the origins and nature of the universe. Matter and space have always existed according to this notion. Outside of the physical world there is only nothingness. Everything is immanent. Nothing is transcendent. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan used to put it in the opening of the popular PBS series Cosmos, the material universe is all there is, all there ever has been, all there ever will be.

When it comes to higher education, the dogma of materialism finds expression in a single, overarching, non-negotiable dictum: in the words of atheist Matthew Stewart, “there is nothing outside the world that may explain anything within it.” The label for this philosophy of knowledge is rationalism. Rationalism regards human reason as the only path to truth. It says that the only way to make sense of the world is to put autonomous humans at the figurative center of the universe and rely on human reason to explain whatever it can.

More to the point, rationalism dismisses the very possibility of divine revelation. This doesn’t mean that the university has to dismiss religion per se from the curriculum, as long as it’s studied as an odd cultural phenomenon that human reason explains away. Most universities of any size have departments of religious studies (often staffed by professors who are atheists or agnostics).  Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians often touch upon religion as well. They just can’t profess to believe any of the truth claims of the religions they study.

All of this makes sense within a materialist, rationalist framework. So does the university’s theoretical stance on moral values. Remember, matter is all that there is. Matter can be weighed, measured, and explained. Values, on the other hand, are immaterial. They are, by definition, subjective and beyond proof. In the moral philosophy of the university, whatever values predominate in a particular place and time are best understood as “social constructions.” They are invented, not discovered. Societies adopt them over time because they are useful or, more likely, because those who wield power over them find them useful. In sum, while there may be discernible patterns of human behavior and belief, these cannot reflect objectively true values that transcend space and time.  Why?  Because nothing transcends space and time.

This, in a nutshell, is how the world is in the eyes of the secular university. What is its vision for how the world should be? Well, it should certainly be more rational, which is another way of saying it should be more secular. For several generations scholars have been asserting that secularization is the natural path of human development and predicting that religion will soon be an embarrassing memory from humanity’s superstitious childhood. Billions of believers have failed to get this memo, however, and both Islamic and Christian revivals continue to sweep vast portions of the majority world.

The world should also be much more just than it is. If the secular university exhibits a fair amount of pragmatism, it also exudes more than its share of moral passion and righteous indignation. This was certainly the case at the University of Washington. Walking across campus on a sunny day meant running a gauntlet of leaflet-wielding student organizations, each bent on converting you to their “cause” of choice: Aids awareness, homelessness, environmentalism, human trafficking, apartheid, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/queer rights, etc. Both faculty and students spoke glibly of “social justice” and “human rights” and both took for granted that these concepts were far more than “social constructions” reflecting the “cultural hegemony” of the cultural elite. The campus was awash in moral claims.

From retrospect, this is the feature of the secular university that I find most striking: On the one hand, the university rests on a theoretical foundation that denies the very possibility of objective moral truth. On the other hand, it promotes an academic culture characterized by pervasive, passionate moralizing. Put the two together and you get the contradiction at the heart of the secular academy: Deny the possibility of moral Truth while crusading for moral truths.

The stereotypical embodiment of this contradiction is the  self-described relativist who denies that there is any transcendent meaning or purpose to human existence, and yet expresses great hope for the future of humanity and feels passionately about his own non-negotiable set of ethical values. Michael Novak has called this oxymoronic outlook “nihilism with a happy face.” It flourishes in the secular university.

The contradiction underlying “nihilism with a happy face” is glaring, but it’s only troubling if you hold to the quaint belief that your worldview should be internally consistent. But I found that, for all its exaltation of reason, when it comes to worldviews, the secular university is not that big on logical consistency. That, at least, was my experience at UW. While I regularly encountered students with strong moral convictions, I encountered few who felt obliged to reconcile their moral commitments with a companion set of beliefs about the origin, nature, and meaning of the universe. In other words, almost none of the students that I got to know thought it essential to develop a comprehensive and logically consistent philosophy of life.  It was not so much that they were opposed to the idea; they had never given it any thought.  Nor were they much challenged to do so during their time at the university, sadly, for the university had given up on that project long ago.

It was pretty much the same with the faculty and graduate students whom I engaged in “meaning-of-life” conversations.  Repeatedly I encountered scholars who condemned religion as irrational but were more than willing to jettison reason in order to cling to their own secular philosophies.  When I gently accused one of my graduate students of inconsistency, she left my office mildly troubled and then returned a few days later to say that she had concluded that I was right and that she was quite willing to live with a measure of irrationality. When I confronted a colleague (a senior professor) about an irrational inconsistency in his worldview, he forcefully objected at first and then—unconvinced by his own argument—shrugged and observed that “perhaps it isn’t all that important to be rational.” Another colleague, a brilliant scholar and religious skeptic, ended our conversation by declaring, “Logical consistency is not my god.”

In “The Great Accreditation Farce,” Peter Conn insists that the faculty at Christian colleges like Wheaton necessarily abandon “the primacy of reason.”  I haven’t encountered that yet, but thanks to my time in the secular university, I think I’ll be able to recognize it when I see it.

SHOULD RELIGIOUS COLLEGES BE DENIED ACCREDITATION?

Hello!  I hope everyone had a wonderful Fourth of July yesterday.

I am going to interrupt my current focus on faith and the American founding for just a moment, as I can’t help addressing one current news item that’s generated considerable buzz in these parts.  The school where I teach, Wheaton College, got mentioned quite prominently in the most current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  If you’re not familiar with this publication, the Chronicle is sort of like the New York Times of the academic world.  Its target audience is primarily educators and administrators and public policy types, in addition to highbrow readers who want to follow the latest trends in higher education.  For a small school like Wheaton, getting a shout-out from the Chronicle is big.

But big isn’t necessarily good, and the attention Wheaton received is a case in point.   As it turned out, the college was exhibit A for the prosecution in a lengthy, inflammatory opinion piece titled “The Great Accreditation Farce.”  The author is Dr. Peter Conn, a professor of English and education at the University of Pennsylvania.  Conn is apparently an expert on accreditation because he participated in two accreditation reviews a decade or more ago.  In 2003 he helped his own institution prepare for an accreditation review, and the following year he was invited to be on the external accreditation committee charged with evaluating Johns Hopkins.

Conn’s title got my attention, as I confess I am more than a little skeptical of the accreditation process myself.  Any school interested in pursuing excellence should both seek and welcome outside feedback on a regular basis.  But because federal financial aid is prohibited to students attending non-accredited institutions, the accreditation process in its current form is, among other things, a Trojan horse for increased federal control of state and private institutions.  Considering all forms of aid, the U. S. government distributed nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars to college and university students during the 2012-13 academic year.   In today’s academic marketplace, rare is the college or university than can survive if its students are barred from federal aid.  This gives enormous leverage to the federal government, and I think it has more than enough of that already.

Conn has a very different set of concerns, however, as I soon learned.  The great “farce” at the heart of the accreditation process consists of the ridiculous practice of accrediting religious institutions.  “By awarding accreditation to religious colleges,” the author writes, “the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.”  This is because “skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research.”  It is “obvious” to Conn that “such inquiry cannot flourish” inside a religious institution.

Conn reserves his greatest scorn for Christian colleges–like Wheaton, which he singles out specifically–that require their faculty to sign statements of religious faith.  Such “intellectually compromised” schools are institutions for brain-washing the faithful, not pursuing the life of the mind.  “At Wheaton,” Conn explains, “the primacy of reason has been abandoned by the deliberate and repeated choices of both its administration and its faculty.”

Lest the reader misconstrue, Conn makes clear–with calculated condescension– that he has “no particular objection to like-minded adherents of one or another religion banding together, calling their association a college, and charging students for the privilege of having their religious beliefs affirmed.”  He does have “a profound objection,” however, “to legitimizing such an association through accreditation.”  Call it whatever you like, in other words, just don’t pretend that such a place is characterized by academic freedom and intellectual integrity.  In short, Conn concludes, “Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.”

Wheaton’s provost, Dr. Stan Jones, has already published an eloquent reply to Conn’s polemic.  Consonant with his character, Jones’ comments are judicious, balanced, and unfailingly gracious, and I could not begin to improve on them, but I do want to share a personal testimony of sorts.  In his response, Jones notes that when Wheaton College “hires colleagues away from nonreligious institutions, we often hear they feel intellectually and academically free here for the first time in their professional careers.”  This was precisely my experience.

My professional life has been framed by two very different institutions.  For the first twenty-two years of my academic career, I taught at the University of Washington in Seattle.  In many ways, my time there was a blessing.  The UW is an elite academic institution with an extraordinary faculty and world-class resources.  During my time there it boasted five Nobel Prize winners, one of the largest libraries in North America, and was ranked by the Economist as one of the top twenty public universities in the world.

I also made several good friends at UW and benefited from a number of genuinely kind colleagues who took sincere interest in my well being, both personal and professional.  Finally, I should acknowledge that I flourished there professionally–in certain respects.  I was awarded tenure, rose in rank from assistant to associate to full professor, won the university’s distinguished teaching award, and was accorded a prestigious endowed chair in U. S. history.

And yet while I was experiencing a certain measure of professional success, my soul was always deeply divided.  I can best describe the alienation I felt by quoting from Harry Blamires, one of the last students of C. S. Lewis.  In his book The Christian Mind, Blamires wrote hauntingly of “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”  Describing my life at UW, Blamires described his own experience as a Christian in the secular academy as akin to being “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.”

That is eventually how I came to think of my time at UW.  For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts.  Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden.  There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity.  After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided the questions of why we existed as a group.  As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

When it came to matters of faith, the university’s unwritten policy was a variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  It celebrated racial and ethnic diversity relentlessly but was never all that enthusiastic about a genuine diversity of worldviews, at least among the faculty and in the curriculum.  If you espoused a vague “spirituality” that made no demands on anyone–or better yet, seemed to reinforce the standard liberal positions of the political Left–all well and good.  Otherwise, it was best to remember that religious belief was a private matter that was irrelevant to our teaching and our scholarship.

For twenty-two years I accommodated my sense of calling to this secular dogma, bracketing my faith and limiting explicit Christian expressions and Christian reflections to private conversations with students who sought me out.   In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer writes movingly about the costs of such segmentation.  Vocation is a calling to a way of life more than to a sphere of life.  “Divided no more!” is Palmer’s rallying cry.

If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton four years ago, these are the words that first come to mind–divided no more.  Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here.  But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.  Conn’s assertion that, in leaving UW for Wheaton,  I have necessarily abandoned reason for dogma also mystifies me.  That he assumes such a trade-off suggests that Dr. Conn is not entirely free of dogma himself.  I could tell Conn about the intellectual excitement that abounds at Wheaton, about the brilliant colleagues I am privileged to work with (trained at places like Harvard and Yale and Duke and UNC), and about the extraordinarily gifted and motivated students that fill my classes, but I doubt that such a reasoned argument would sway him.  Reason is rarely helpful in changing an opinion not grounded in reason to begin with.

A final comment, this one about the relationship between academic freedom and academic community.  In addition to finding greater academic freedom at Wheaton, I have also encountered a true intellectual community here, one that the sprawling postmodern multiversity cannot be expected to equal.  Countless times I have reflected on the words of the German minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who observed in his 1938 classic Life Together, “it is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living [and, I would add, of laboring] among other Christians.”   When we have that privilege, Bonhoeffer went on to observe, we should fall to our knees and thank God for his goodness, for “it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

Bonhoeffer knew firsthand about the hostility of an aggressively secular ideology.  He penned the words above while teaching at a clandestine seminary watched closely by the Gestapo; they were translated into English a decade after his execution in a Nazi prison camp for his opposition to Adolph Hitler.  Peter Conn does not want to drive all religious colleges underground.  He just wants to declare them to be, by definition, academically illegitimate.  In my experience, the most zealous champions of “academic freedom” are often selective in applying it.  That’s certainly the case with Dr. Conn.